Changing Families and Feminist Blind Spots: Have female-friendly policies been captured by middle class feminists?
When giving up an evening to go to a talk on with the title above, you would probably be fair in making the assumption that this would be a discussion amongst identifying Feminists, with a focus on intersectionality, touching on issues of class and race. Or at least that is the assumption I made, when invited by a colleague. It is only now that I read it another way; ‘feminists’ here are The Other, separated from everyone else.
It began with a presentation by Professor Baroness Alison Wolf, yet throughout the evening, it seemed that she was most concerned with promoting her book ‘The XX Factor: How Working Women are Creating a New Society’. If Wolf was meant to be the spokesperson for Feminism, her voice was not strong enough, and she often put her foot in her mouth. For example, when making the assumption that the room is full of middle class people, what are you then saying about working class people? By making a sweeping generalisation on the audience appearance, Wolf was unable to address the complexities of class as it is now. She talked about 15-20% percentage of women being highly educated, and the rest being ignored by Feminism, which may be true of certain strands of mainstream Feminism, but within that she ignored the gap between herself and a lot of women who would be deemed middle class. The middle class is a wider demographic that Wolf presented.
When Wolf began her presentation, she was aware that it may be seen a controversial. At first I wondered if what she was saying was deliberately done to make us feel uncomfortable. That would have been a great tactic. However, as she went on, what she said seemed more illogical and simply not that well informed. She may know her economics, but she doesn’t know her Feminism. I’ve followed the work of The Crunk Feminist Collective for some time, but there are plenty of examples of intersectional Feminism and no mention of this aspect of Feminism today at the event. There are also writers such as Bridget Minamore and Chimene Suleyman writing for Poejazzi who touch on these topics. Here you can read articles such as ‘The “Fierce” Black Woman Inside You Desont’ Exist” (Minamore) and ‘Fighting against the fetishisation of women, doesn’t work if you fetishise women’ (Suleyman), which are Feminist, and offer a valuable critique of the type of Feminism Wolf was attempting to address.
Wolf’s point about working class women was lost by ignoring the women she claimed to be speaking for. But why was she speaking for them at all? Would it not have been better to actually bring women who identified as working class and allowed them the space to get their voice heard? Instead, Wolf presented a case of topics that mainstream Feminists were concerned about and put them up against what was happening elsewhere in the world. However, there was only one example that actually included a gendered news story, and if we are talking on Feminism, this should have been the focus. What was also concerning was the way Wolf talked about rape, which was extremely dismissive. She even went on to say that people are interested in rape because society is obsessed with sex and violence. She seemed not to realise that rape is not about an obsession with sex, but more about power.
Furthermore, women are arguably more vulnerable to rape if they are from a lower economic background or if they are not white, with these factors also being an influence on what happens in the courtroom, should it be taken there. But there was no mention of this, no mention of rape as a weapon of war in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and I’m not sure there was even mention of the 200 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped in April 2014. Four girls who escaped said they had been held in a camp in Cameroon and raped every day. And she claims that our concern about rape is so we can “feel victimised and superior at the same time.” . The media may have their own agenda, but to imply that we don’t care about these issues just doesn’t make sense.
Mainstream Feminism needs to take notice of how gender, class and race intersect, but this didn’t seem to be exactly what Wolf was saying. She didn’t engage with the role of the superrich 1%. She seemed to want to show that women’s progress has damaged women, and a lot of her argument was based around the idea that a childless woman is a “problem”. Whilst I agreed that more collectivist methods are needed in order to benefit working class women, she spoke of an “individualistic and career-orientated elite” and didn’t really consider who the elite actually are. She made the mistake of criticising others, whilst not looking at her own faults, and including herself in the problems of Feminism, and showing ways in which we all can listen to the voices of working class women.
In the audience, there were stifled noises of exasperation. But if we thought that was bad, we hadn’t seen anything yet! Belinda Brown was next to speak, and she certainly didn’t offer the critique we may have imagined. She spoke about gender trumping class, and didn’t seem to understand the point of intersectionality, that Wolf had touched on by stating that in terms of the pay gap, gender only becomes an issue for those who are from a lower economic background. Whilst this in itself is debatable, this widening gap is a concern; it is a Feminist issue. Brown spoke about women at the top damaging men’s jobs, but it was when she made a joke about women spending money shopping that I was sure that I wouldn’t agree with a word she said.
To be fair, she touched on one point of common ground. Women who have children are obviously biologically forced to take some time out of work to have children. We shared the view that part of the problem is that, where women are the main caregivers, this work is not valued as work. Because society doesn’t value a lot of the work women do, both at home and the type of positions women tend to take, this means that they also face the brunt of financial problems. Yet, because Brown was clearly anti-Feminism, she was also unable to see that men are also the fathers of their children. She repeatedly failed to acknowledge this, and therefore didn’t see a way of this changing. She didn’t see that a more equal distribution of childcare was needed. She didn’t see that this is an issue that runs deeper than class, that middle class families are also struggling to afford childcare, that this is a massive societal problem. Brown became flustered when confronted with the slightly bit of opposition (and believe me, a lot of people held back saying anything), and she brought her personal life as a carer for her partner. Whilst I couldn’t fail to feel sympathy for her situation, I also wanted to (metaphorically) shake her. It didn’t make sense that she could see how the value of her carework is seen as lower than her academic work, and yet couldn’t see that this view is due to the patriarchal structure of society. She couldn’t see that this also links to other power structures such as Capitalism and historic white supremacy.
The whole evening was such a mess that even the chair, Emma Barnett, had to step in to confront what was being said. Frankly, I would have rather listened to what Barnett had to say than either of the actual speakers.